It was somewhat surprising to us that our Italian friends were aware of the American holiday of Thanksgiving. There really is no Italian equivalent for it, after all. More surprising; however, was their fascination for its celebration–its whys and hows. It was in the summer when our friend, Pierino, owner and executive chef of Il Capriccio Ristorante, asked us if we would host a traditional Thanksgiving dinner and we readily agreed mostly because, by the time I had lived in Puglia for a few months, the thought of roasted turkey, stuffing and mashed potatoes with thick gravy set my mouth to watering. I asked Pierino where we would find a turkey, knowing that turkey is not a Pugliese staple.
“Non ti preoccupare,” he said. Don’t worry. Colleen, who was translating for us, told us that Pierino offered to raise a turkey for the occasion. The rest of the arrangements were left to us.
Fortunately, Jessica’s father, Jeff and his wife, Cindy, planned to join us in Puglia for the Thanksgiving holiday so, those items essential to the menu that could not be found in Puglia could be imported in their luggage. Cans of pumpkin, cranberry sauce, bags of flour and even the pie pans that Cindy, who volunteered to make the pumpkin pies, had confidence in, made the trip from the US.
About a week before Thanksgiving, Pierino took Colleen, Jessica and me to visit the turkey, whom I had dubbed “Sidney,” prior to his becoming the guest of honor at dinner. Along with Sidney in the fenced-off bird enclosure were chickens, ducks, pheasants and a peacock. It took Pierino a while to chase Sidney down, amidst a great deal of squawking by the entire poultry population, so that he could be introduced to us, “up close and personal.” Once captured, we got a good look at the array of colors on display by this beautiful bird. I observed, though, that Sidney did not look to be big enough to satisfy the appetites of the 15-or-so people we were going to have to feed. Oh, well. We’ll just have to make more mashed potatoes, I thought.
It was with only then that we came to a realization. There was no way that our Italian-sized oven could accommodate even an undersized turkey, let alone a full Thanksgiving menu that included candied yams, two pumpkin pies and roasted brussels sprouts. Nor did we have nearly the number of dishes we would need to provide for all of the invitees. Francesco, Colleen, Pierino, Jessica and I had a “team” meeting and decided that Thanksgiving dinner would be held at Pierino’s restaurant, Il Capriccio. Everyone was informed that we would begin at 1:30 on Thursday.
Except for the pumpkin pies, which were in Cindy’s good hands, the balance of the menu was the responsibility of Pierino and me. It included: Sidney, stuffing, the yams and brussels sprouts, mashed potatoes and gravy and cranberry sauce. Step one was taken Wednesday evening when I met Pierino at the restaurant to make the brine that the turkey would soak in for the next 12 hours. Il Capriccio is closed on Wednesdays, so we had the kitchen to ourselves and set about making the vegetable stock-based brine. We salted it heavily, added some sugar and a sachet of fresh herbs. We then dumped into the large soup pot copious amounts of ice to chill the brine. As the liquid cooled, we brought Sidney out of the walk-in cooler. Before placed him into the brine, Pierino took the bird to the scale. Fifteen kilos (about 33 pounds). My worries of too little turkey on the table disappeared.
Once the turkey was in the brine and placed in the cooler for the night, Pierino and I opened a bottle of primitivo and drank it together. For an hour we just sat together and talked, Pierino in Italian and I in something that may have resembled Italian, but somehow communicating every thought in a way that we got it.
The next morning, I got up early, gave Jessica a shopping list of the final items we needed and began to prepare the stuffing so that it was ready when we removed the turkey from the brine. The shopping list consisted of several items, including a half-kilo (just over a pound) of butter. When Jessica returned with six 800 gram blocks of butter totaling over 10-1/2 pounds, I made the mistake of asking her about her overzealous acquisition.
“Well, I didn’t really know how much a half-kilo was,” she said simply.
I went back to the restaurant to begin the preparation of the rest of the menu. Pierino and I started by packing the cavities of the turkey with the stuffing. Once done, the bird was slathered with butter and put into a 500 degree oven. Potatoes were set to boil, yams were peeled and diced and brussels sprouts were chopped. After about a half-hour of roasting, we turned the oven temperature down to 350, noting the turkey’s now golden, crispy skin. So far, so good.
All the while that Pierino and I worked the kitchen, his staff were preparing the restaurant for lunch service. Pierino joked with them that the restaurant had a new capocuoco, a new head chef. I explained to them that I was nothing more than the new sous chef. They laughed heartily at both assertions.
The potatoes were done boiling and, to my amazement, Pierino plucked the hot spuds out of the pot and proceeded to use his bare hands to peel the skins off of each one. It was not the last time that day that his asbestos hands would impress me. I ran the soft potatoes through the ricer and Pierino tossed in a kilo or two of butter. Voila! Mashed potatoes.
The yams were prepped and put into the oven, as were the brussels sprouts. Sixty minutes to plating and we were right on schedule.
Okay, I’m a bit of a salmonella nut, so I insisted that we use a meat thermometer on the turkey and on the stuffing just to be sure that they were at a temperature at which the pesky bacteria could no longer put any of our Thanksgiving guests in il bagno for a few hours (or worse). Pierino indulged me, though the results of my temperature-taking didn’t really interest him much. Or perhaps it was that my thermometer measured in fahrenheit and he didn’t. In any case, I was satisfied that everything was cooked through so out came the turkey. We decided to carve the bird in the kitchen and serve the meat on several platters at the table.
We managed to wield the big bird to the counter and onto a couple of large cutting boards. Pierino sliced along the backbone and then across the turkey to release the breast, all the time having his free and bare hand holding the thing in place. How he was able to keep his hand on the just-out-of-the-oven, still-steaming bird still confounds me.
The guests were starting to arrive: Jessica with Jeff and Cindy; Colleen and Francesco; Francesco’s parents, Andrea and Anna; and Francesco’s friend who was now living in England. Pierino’s wife, Antonella, who runs the front of the house at Il Capriccio and his young, precocious daughter Valentina, also joined the group. Once they were all seated, Pierino, Antonella and I began to deliver the food to the table.
Of the several people in the kitchen, only Pierino was not surprised to learn that all of the food (except for the pumpkin pies, of course) was to be served at the same time. There was to be no antipasti. Neither would there be a primi; nor a secondi. It was all there to be eaten, all at the same time, the artists among us soon to be mixing bits of turkey into the mashed potatoes, rolling in some stuffing and dousing the lot with gravy.
I said grace in stunted Italian and, when asked by one of our guests what is the story behind Thanksgiving, I proceeded in a version of Italian that may have never yet been spoken in any part of Italy or in the world, for that matter, to talk about the Pilgrims and the native Americans and the harvest and turkeys and cornucopia and every other image I could conjure up. At least that’s what I think I talked about. In any case, by the time I finished, everyone’s plate had been filled and emptied (Andrea’s twice) and the table was looking decidedly sparse. It was at this point that Andrea asked the question I had been dreading.
“Where’s the next course?”